The conservative movement is one that I have great trouble understanding. To voluntarily put yourself on the wrong side of history, reason, and kindness is unthinkable to me. However, I doubt most conservatives see themselves as such. Instead, they fail to see the context of history, putting themselves in the position of defending a lack of progress in society. Whether it be in rejecting global warming or accepting tax cuts for the rich, at he same time they also ignore reason. Put those together, along with some atrocious marketing, and you have today's GOP.
The irony of the beginning of conservatism is that out of its defeat has been borne the modern conservative movement. Conservatives would contend that they wish to take us back to our roots, to the very beginning of our nation, when we were truly governed by the constitution and stuck to "American values." I would suggest a different interpretation of history, however. The true conservatives were the royalists, those afraid of taking on injustice and facing a non-British future in which their status was questioned. Those wanting to push forward to a brighter future were the patriots. Would today's conservatives have risked their lives for a new future? I doubt it.
The next stage of history is also ironic to today's GOP because the true history of their party, founded and defined by Lincoln, is one of progressivism. The true conservatives of that time were the Democrats. They wanted to keep a society the same that was good to them but oppressive to those "under" them. This society not only lacked empathy but also lacked humanity, both of which Abraham Lincoln recognized. A radical for the times, Lincoln of course advocated abolitionism and unity. To question the power of the southern slave owners with their plantations and evil fortunes was an offense too egregious in the minds of the South for Lincoln to be able to live through. This courageous progressivism characterizes all that liberals hope to be today.
From the beginning of the 20th century to now, the liberal vs. conservative argument has been defined in the modern sense. Theodore Roosevelt, a progressive Republican, founded the American conservation movement, busted trusts, and worked for a square deal for all Americans. Woodrow Wilson, the scourge of the GOP, banned child labor (before the conservative Supreme Court overturned it), created the Federal Reserve, and utilized American power not just to win a war but to establish the League of Nations for future peace. FDR's New Deal saved the economy, and his Social Security is still ensuring that seniors of all income levels can retire. LBJ's landmark domestic presidency gave us a greater society of improved racial equality and Medicaid and Food Stamps. Nixon created the EPA. Obama's current programs, including the Dodd-Frank bill, the Stimulus bill, and Obamacare may make his presidency controversial today, but they will be well-received historically, and his "socialism", like FDR's purported socialism, is imagined by conservatives.
So what do modern conservatives stand for, and how will it make them viewed negatively by history? Their opposition to gay marriage is clearly an opposition to a second Civil Rights Movement; their opposition to gun control is not only unthinkably unequivocal and influenced by interest groups but ridiculous; their foreign policy is still jingoistic after Iraq; they stand up for the wealthiest by cutting programs for the poor rather than raising taxes on the rich; and their partisanship has led to a party system in which they have taken a back seat, especially if Hillary wins in 2016. Today's Republicans are not only conservative but are radical in that conservatism: they embrace the paradox of being zealous of keeping society the same.
Has there ever been a great president or policy that has been truly conservative? Conservatives would contend that Ronald Reagan is a great president, but I would argue against his conservatism and his greatness. He ran larger deficits than any other post-war president before him, and his tax cuts for the rich lead to high inequality, high unemployment, and the aforementioned deficits. Furthermore, he raised taxes after he cut them, and according to Paul Krugman, "there were two major tax changes in Reagan’s first term, which began in January 1981. ERTA, aka the Reagan tax cut, was signed in August 1981; TEFRA, which raised taxes, was signed in September 1982." Who else can they point to, then? George W. Bush? Must I even discuss him?
At this point, the Democratic Party is at its strongest point in history. After they've had the Bushes and we've had Bill Clinton and Obama, it is becoming clear which party can actually govern the nation effectively. Furthermore, with the GOP civil war, they are having trouble agreeing on which candidates they should nominate. If Hillary wins in 2016, not only will we have had the White House for 12 years, but also we will have had the first black and female presidents in succession. Kos had a great article a few weeks ago about the state of their party, and it does not need to be replicated, but the point is that our nation and the globe are moving farther to the left because people are seeing that it is the side not only of empathy but also of reason.
What, then, does it mean to be a Democrat? It means that we will fight for civil rights, equality, peace, and a better society. We will fight against violence, privilege, and corporations which oppress the people. We love politics because we think that the government can help people. Call us idealistic, but at the same time call Lincoln an idealist. How do we see America? We see it not as a country destined to assert its dominance over the countries around the world; instead, it means that we see America as the leader of a peaceful world. While Republicans take TR's quote as "speak loudly, carry a tree," we take it at face value.
I remember a conversation I had with a very conservative friend as epitomizing the extremes of what conservatism has become. First we debated the literal creation, during which she claimed that the earth was created 4,000 years ago. When I told her about the two conflicting creation stories, she gazed at me in amazement. Then we moved onto abortion, where I told her that over a million abortions per year were being done before Roe. Finally we moved onto economics, what I believe to be the central argument between the parties and something which she obviously had no concern for. She asked me if I wanted a "big government" to "redistribute the wealth." And I thought to myself that the far right in America, the tea party, may be more and more comprising the majority of at party (see Rand Paul and Marco Rubio 2016).
My point, if it has been lost amidst this rant, is that conservatism should not be something to be proud of. I may have just preached to the choir, but at least I had a good time writing this. Nonetheless, think of the meaning of the word conservatism. To hold society back is not a good thing. Throughout American history, conservatives (not necessarily Republicans, see earlier sections on Lincoln and TR) have been unsuccessful. Not only have their policies hurt people, but their supposed economic prowess has followed what Bill Clinton called "a failed economic theory." In other words, their hope for economic growth, which they use to justify hurting the poor, is a hope that will not be fulfilled under supply-side economics. Conservatives have always been wealthy and have wanted to keep their status and the status of those under them the same. Today, they are either rich or uninformed. Why would conservatives even get into government if they think it can only hurt people? Do they devote their lives to government to demolish it? Thankfully, in this country I can choose the other side.